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Jo’burg’s watershed moment, what’s next?
From the gold rush days to the bright city lights and corporate head offices of today, Jo’burg has been South Africa’s economic heartland. Yet, the city has no major rivers or natural lakes and neither an ocean nor coastline nearby. Mining practices have added yet another layer to the city’s water insecurity.
Five facts about Jo’burg’s water story:
- The gold rush of the 1870s saw people flooding into Johannesburg from across the world. The discovery of coal on the East Rand supplied power and jobs but water was a limiting factor.
- To deal with the need, water was first sourced from the Vaal River and aquifers north of the city. By 1924 a set of gates across the Vaal River were built, known as The Vaal Barrage. By 1938 it had been raised three times.
- The population continued to expand until finally the municipality began to look beyond national borders for water. In 1980 the government orchestrated a coup to overthrow the Lesotho government, replacing it with a government that cheaply signed the water transfer rights to South Africa. The dams and tunnels that were constructed for this transfer scheme led to massive detrimental effects on Lesotho’s environment, rural communities and the livelihoods of many Lesotho farmers.
- Today, Johannesburg is again operating at its limit – still drawing from Lesotho. Due to mismanagement and corruption, the second phase of the Lesotho Highlands Transfer Scheme has since been pushed back to 2025 (meant to be ready by 2018).
- Besides not having adequate water supply, the city’s deep shaft mine beginnings are coming back to haunt it. Old mine shafts are filling with groundwater and the rock is reacting with this water to make it extremely acidic. This means that the groundwater that is below the city is being polluted – threatening supply.
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